Museums Bolster Communities

By Laura L. Lott
President & CEO, American Alliance of Museums

Museums can save a community. This may sound like an exaggeration, but there are countless examples across the United States, where museums have saved struggling cities and bolstered strong cities, filling educational, financial and employment gaps. As Chicago and Illinois face their own budget struggles, a small but vocal group is coming perilously close to blocking a golden opportunity for the community.

Most communities around the country would love to have a new institution such as the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art open its doors within their borders. Most communities know and appreciate what a museum can deliver to a city, including jobs, educational opportunities and new tourism and other revenue. It’s a shame that some in Chicago are blind to decades of indisputable national data and may force the city to reject this tremendous gift.

There are over 850 million visits to American museums every year — more than the attendees of all major sporting events and theme parks combined. The American Alliance of Museums estimates that museums directly contribute more than $21 billion to the national economy and employ more than half a million people nationwide.

In Chicago alone, museums contribute $850 million to the local economy, directly employ 4,000 people and contribute $38 million in city tax revenue (plus an equal amount to the state).

As employers, contractors, and tourist attractions, Chicago area museums have a major regional economic impact leading to jobs, tourism — welcoming 5 million non-Illinois visitors annually, (many from outside of the US) and improved quality of life for the city’s residents. They are part of the broader nonprofit arts and culture industry that is responsible for $135 billion in spending in this country and more than $22 billion in tax revenue, much more than they receive in government support.

Beyond the numbers, museums have a unique ability to create connections and build bridges in communities where those links are missing. Museums connect the past with today’s visitors, who include tomorrow’s creators. They preserve history while at the same time connecting it to what’s happening today and inspiring the future. Show me a creative person, an innovator, a problem solver, and I’ll show you a person who was inspired by seeing the work of someone who came before them.

The Lucas Museum’s focus on narrative art means it will showcase not only the finished works — paintings, illustration, photography, cinema and digital art — but also the process that led to the art, such as storyboards, set designs, props, and visual effects.

A museum is also, and always, a place of learning. Museums in the US spend more than $2.2 billion a year on educational programs for students and welcome more than 90 million visits each year from students in school groups. In Chicago, Illinois school groups are admitted to the city’s museums free of charge, and 1.6 million school children visit Chicago museums each year. And if you think of museums as merely a field trip destination, you’re missing the bigger picture.

Museums are making meaningful contributions in teacher training, PreK–12 curricula, support for home school communities and internship programs that employ and train the next generation. The Lucas plans include production-quality digital editing facilities, video conferencing for guest lectures and workshops, a 4,200-square-foot library, and hands-on workshop studios for children.

The museum field is fighting hard in communities like Chicago and Illinois to recognize museums as vital investments — and not just amenities that can be put aside during tough budget times like Illinois is facing. It is noteworthy that the leaders of 10 Chicago museums, including some already on the lakefront, signed a letter of support to bring the Lucas Museum to Chicago.

Unlike for-profit businesses that compete with each other for customers, the museum field is part of a unique alliance. The alliance is strong and by working together, museums deliver education, jobs and revenues to struggling communities. These museums realize that the market for inspiration and learning is one that can never be oversaturated.